Seth and Sarah Maxim are looking to open a brewpub in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood, but they've run into a challenge. The former fitness center and tanning salon they bought in the 5300 block of East Superior Street is located kitty-corner from a former church that's now home to the Spirit of the Lake Community School.
A Duluth ordinance requires any business that sells alcoholic beverages to be located no closer than 400 feet away from both churches and schools. The distance is measured from the property line of the school to the door of the licensed beverage establishment.
The front door of the building the Maxims plan to turn into a brewpub is too close to the neighboring school under the current ordinance, and moving the doorway of a brick building is no inexpensive proposition. Sarah Maxim said the doorway would need to shift only a few feet to the west, but it would likely cost upward of $25,000, and that's a difficult expense to bear when you're trying to get a new business off the ground.
"We're trying to make this happen, and our pennies only stretch so far. So it would be helpful to not have to move the front door, if that's possible," said Sarah Maxim.
When 1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson learned of the situation, it didn't seem right to him.
"They could reconfigure the building for the sake of honoring the 400-foot rule, but it would cost them a bunch of money and it really wouldn't have a very different effect on the neighborhood, if you will," he said.
What's more, the board of directors for the Spirit of the Lake Community School has weighed in, sending a letter to city officials indicating they're in support of allowing the brewpub to open next door, as is. Incidentally, the Maxims' son attends the school.
But the current ordinance is a hard-and-fast rule that really allows for no flexibility on the part of the city, explained Chelsea Helmer, Duluth's director of administrative services. Nevertheless, she said the city's alcohol, gambling and tobacco commission recommended the City Council consider a waiver for the Maxims' brewpub, given the circumstances.
Anderson has proposed the city amend the ordinance to require only a 300-foot setback for restaurants with beer or liquor licenses from churches and schools, and that amended ordinance is expected to go to a vote Monday night. The brewpub would qualify as a restaurant, as it will offer a full menu.
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The reduced distance brings Duluth more closely in line with other cities, said Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer. He noted that Minneapolis, Bloomington and St. Paul all call for a 300-foot setback between drinking establishments and churches and schools. Meanwhile, Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato have no such setback rules.
"So, rather than just repealing the rule and not having that in place, this seemed to be a clean way to address the issue at hand and also provide some consistency with other cities around the state," Schuchman said of the proposed ordinance amendment.
Anderson said the support of the school also adds to his comfort in going to bat for a rule change. "These are people who live in the community, people who work there and send their kids there, and they're saying, 'A brewpub is not going to interfere with our ability to do our work, and therefore we want to support this business coming into our neighborhood.'"
"The City Council regularly faces pushback because people say that we are not friendly to business, and I think this is a case where I am trying to be supportive of a new business that's reaching out and asking for help," Anderson said.
With the fitness club now defunct, Anderson said he's eager to see new life breathed into the commercial property. Anderson noted that the Maxims have experience in the brewpub business, and he suspects their establishment will add to the neighborhood.
"Once we have a vaccine in place and the COVID-19 emergency is done, I think people are going to be so happy to be able to walk over and have a beer and a burger in their own neighborhood. I think people will really appreciate that," he said.
Sarah Maxim said that assuming COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, she and her husband hope to open their brewpub by late spring or early summer. But she explained that uncertainty about whether they will need reconfigure the entrance has been holding up work a bit.
"We're waiting to finalize our floor plan here, and the door situation is really hanging up our architects. We'll need to know before we can get our building permits written up," she said.